Meet Gov. Sanford's other Family

the_family_book.pngThere was a cryptic moment in the emotional press conference South Carolina Gov. Mark Sanford held last week to apologize for committing adultery.

"C Street," Sanford said, is where men face "hard questions."

Later, in response to a question from a reporter, the Republican governor and former congressman said that he had been to "what we called 'C Street' when I was in Washington."

Sanford was referring to the address of the Washington headquarters for The Family -- perhaps the most politically powerful religious group in Washington. Sponsor of the annual National Prayer Breakfast that draws leading U.S. politicians, the secretive Christian organization also known as The Fellowship was founded in Seattle in 1935 by Abraham Vereide, a Norwegian immigrant and itinerant preacher who worked with the city's poor and feared the pull of socialism. He claimed that God appeared to him to warn that Christianity's preoccupation with the poor and weak was misguided, so Vereide began to minister to the powerful. He organized prayer breakfasts for political and business leaders to promote anti-Communism and anti-unionism, and the group later went on to work with dictators in Africa, Asia and Latin America.

The family is headed by a man named Douglas Coe, who has controversially encouraged the men under his tutelage to follow Jesus with the same sort of blind devotion shown by Hitler's followers. The members also refer to themselves as the "new chosen people," believing that the Jews broke their covenant with God.

Incorporated today as a tax-free 501(c)(3) nonprofit operating under the name The Fellowship Foundation, the Family maintains a three-story, $1.1 million brick townhouse at 133 C St. in Washington -- a former convent that's now home to members of Congress while being treated like a church under tax law. Among the lawmakers who have rented rooms there are Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) and Jim DeMint (R-S.C.). Other lawmakers linked to the group include Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.), Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Sen. John Ensign (R-Nev.), who also recently admitted to an extramarital affair.

In a meeting with his cabinet after his public confession, the New York Times reported, Gov. Sanford apologized for letting people down but said he has no plans to resign. He referred to the biblical story of King David: "the way in which he fell mightily ... but then picked up the pieces and built from there."

In a radio interview yesterday with Terry Gross of NPR's Fresh Air, Jeff Sharlet -- author of "The Family: The Secret Fundamentalism at the Heart of American Power" -- shed more light on the shadowy group and Sanford's connection to it. Sharlet, who is also the co-creator of Killing the Buddha, an online literary journal about religion, spent almost a month several years ago living at Ivanwald, The Family's two-story colonial house on a cul-de-sac in Arlington, Va. that serves as a training ground for the group's next generation. Recommended for membership by a banker acquaintance, Sharlet was in fact there on a reporting mission that besides his book led to a 2003 Harper's magazine story titled "Jesus plus nothing: Undercover among America's secret theocrats."

During the interview with Gross, Sharlet noted The Family's emphasis on the biblical King David story that Sanford referenced. In that tale, David sees the beautiful Bathsheba, decides he must have her, gets her pregnant, arranges to have her husband killed in battle, and then marries her. Asked by Gross whether he had a better understanding of the Sanford affair because he studied The Family, Sharlet pointed to the governor's King David reference:
That's actually one of the sort of core parables of The Family that I encountered, and describe this experience with David Coe, the son of Doug Coe, the leader, came around and gave us this long lesson. He says, 'What made King David great?' And the men I was with are all trying to say, 'Well, he loved God,' all this. He [says], 'No, No, that's not it. King David was a terrible man. You know, he was an adulterer and a murderer. So why is he a hero of the Bible?' And the answer is because God chose him. King David is beyond morality, in their limited understanding of scripture. ... I could almost hear Doug Coe's voice when Gov. Sanford was saying, 'I need to keep governing, because I'm like King David.'
The calls for Sanford to step down are growing louder, with a half-dozen newspapers, a majority of Republicans in the South Carolina state senate and U.S. Rep. Gresham Barrett (R-S.C.) all urging his resignation. But the South Carolina newspaper The State reports that Sanford says he plans to stay "until they throw me out."

After all, that's what King David would do.